If you’ve been writing for any amount of time, you’re probably aware of the importance of the first chapter.
Arguably, the first chapter is the most crucial part of your entire novel—because it’s the first thing readers will see when they open your book and it’s the place where they’ll decide if they want to continue reading.
This is why an opening that grips and engages readers is key.
Getting the first chapter right is a difficult ordeal, but it’s critical to the quality of your book, and worth it in the end.
But how do you hook readers? And once you’ve hooked them, how do you keep them engaged? Don’t worry. These are common questions.
Read on to discover how to write a first chapter that grips readers.
Spoiler Alert: There is no Exact Science or Formula
Before jumping into the meat of this post, I want to clarify there’s no one-size-fits-all formula to writing the first chapter.
Every writer is different and every story is different—and every first chapter is different. What works for some writers and some stories may not work for other writers or stories.
However, there are a few common threads between standout first chapters, which is the topic of this blog post.
The 8 Elements of First Chapters That Hook Readers
1. An Excellent First Line/Opening Paragraph
Since the first chapter is the introduction of your book, the first line and opening paragraph are the first part of that.
Don’t you love it when you’re reading a book and after only a few sentences, you can’t stop reading? That’s the work of an excellent first line and opening paragraph.
But how do you make sure your first line and opening paragraph hook readers? It’s actually pretty simple.
And contrary to what you might be thinking, the answer is not that the first line has to contain some crazy and mind-blowing event with lots of action. Because it really doesn’t.
Think about one of your favorite books and look at the first line and opening paragraph. Most of the time they don’t start with anything crazy—it’s usually something simple.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t open your book with something wild like bombs exploding or volcanoes erupting. But the point is, don’t stress if your first line isn’t flashy or filled with tons of action.
The main thing that draws readers in is curiosity. We as humans love learning the why and how behind things, which is how books persuade us to keep reading.
So to apply this to your first line and opening paragraph—all they have to do is raise questions in the reader’s mind.
And don’t give the reader all the answers right away. Make them work for it. Because that’s what will keep them reading.
Let’s take a look at a few examples from some of my favorite books below. Notice that each one raises questions that entice you to keep reading.
Here are a few examples from some of my favorite books:
- When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping. (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
- You immediately wonder, who is the POV (point-of-view) character? Who’s Prim? What is the reaping?
- The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads had been stripped clean. (Cinder by Marissa Meyer)
- The questions that spring to mind are why is the screw rusted? Why does she have a screw in her ankle in the first place? Who is Cinder?
- Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. (Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)
- The questions for this book are who are Mr. and Mrs. Dursley? How are they ‘perfectly normal?’ And why is that important?
Do you see what I mean? Igniting readers’ curiosity is the key to writing an excellent first line and opening paragraph.
2. Establish the Basics
By the basics, this means the setting, the time period, the genre, the tone, and the POV. And this might seem like a lot, but don’t get overwhelmed. It’s actually quite simple.
First, the setting. Does your opening scene take place on an abandoned island? A shopping mall? A castle? A spaceship? You don’t have to explain where the story takes place right away—but you’ll want to include it somewhere in the first chapter so readers aren’t confused.
But you also want to be careful about where you place the information. You don’t want to info-dump or shove the description between two paragraphs awkwardly.
Try to introduce the setting naturally, and remember, it doesn’t have to be all at once either. Feeding little details throughout the chapter often works beautifully.
Then there’s the time period. This is more important for historical and contemporary fiction, but it’s still helpful to keep in mind.
Does your story take place in the 1800s during the Civil War? Does it occur when Hitler was chancellor of Germany in the 1930s? Or does your story happen in modern-day India? Establishing this early on is important to give readers clarity and avoid confusion.
Then there’s the genre. Are you writing a fantasy novel? Dystopian? Contemporary? Along with this, what is the age category? Are you writing a middle-grade book? Young adult? Adult?
Each of these genres has its own distinct elements that set them apart from each other. Readers shouldn’t have to guess the genre of the book they’re reading.
You also want to set the tone for the rest of your story in your first chapter. Consider the tone or mood of your book. Is it dark? Humorous? Serious? Light-hearted? It’s okay if the tone of your book is a mix-match of a few of these, but it’s critical to establish the tone from the beginning.
Last but not least, there’s the POV. Whose eyes are we seeing the story through? Is it a sixteen-year-old princess? A middle-aged astronaut? A young schoolboy? Making this clear to readers from the beginning is crucial.
This all may sound like a lot, but each of these elements has its own unique importance. Establishing the basics from the beginning sets expectations for readers and helps avoid confusion.
3. Introduce the Protagonist
It’s obvious that introducing your protagonist is an important piece of the first chapter.
Your protagonist should be a sympathetic character—readers should want to stick with them for the rest of the book.
Now, this doesn’t mean they must be perfect. You actually don’t want your protagonist to be perfect because no one’s perfect. And readers won’t be able to relate to a perfect character.
Your protagonist should have a combination of both strengths and weaknesses—because that’s how real people are, and you want your protagonist to be as realistic as possible.
Don’t you love it when you’re reading a book and the characters are so clear in your mind that they feel like real people?
That’s the effect you want your protagonist to have.
But you have to find a balance. You don’t want to go too overboard with the flaws that your protagonist turns into an unlikeable bad guy. They should also have some redeeming qualities to even things out.
But now that you know the traits your protagonist should display, how do you actually introduce them?
An excellent way to accomplish this is to show your protagonist in their element. In the first chapter of The Hunger Games, the author does this by showing Katniss hunting with her best friend—this is her element.
Ask yourself, in what area of life, is your protagonist competent? Where do they feel at home? That’s their element.
Another way to create a connection between your reader and your protagonist is by using a technique called ‘save the cat.’ This term was coined by Blake Snyder in his book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, and it’s extremely applicable to writing. The phrase refers to making your protagonist sympathetic by having them save a cat in a tree—or something along those lines.
If you’re having a hard time making your protagonist sympathetic to readers, you should definitely give this technique a try. Obviously, your character doesn’t actually have to save a cat—but maybe your protagonist gives a loaf of bread to some orphans like in Disney’s Aladdin.
The foundation of this principle is simply having your main character do something nice for someone else. It won’t work for every story, but it’s a helpful tool for many.
4. Introduce the Goal
Along with introducing the protagonist, you also want to introduce their goal. Your protagonist should always have a goal because it makes them proactive—and therefore sympathetic. No one likes reading about a character who sits on their butt all day long doing nothing.
This doesn’t mean, your character can’t do any reacting—that’s important too—but the main idea to remember is to keep your protagonist active.
So think about your protagonist and what their goal might be. Most of the time, they’ll actually have two goals:
1. One overarching goal they’ll try to reach over the course of the story.
2. And one smaller scene goal that will help them reach their overarching goal.
The overarching goal is a big topic and one you should determine before you start writing—so if you’d like to learn more, check out this article from Well-Storied.
For now, we’ll talk about how to introduce your protagonist’s goals. And the best way to do this is described by the technique show don’t tell.
In a nutshell, this phrase is just what it sounds like. Show your protagonist’s goal, don’t tell the reader what it is. This goes for both the overarching goal and the chapter goal.
To show how this works, let’s look at an example—The Hunger Games. From the beginning, it’s easy to see that Katniss’ overarching goal is to protect her family, specifically her younger sister, Prim.
And she works towards this overarching goal in the first chapter through her scene goal, which is to hunt for game. And we see this in one of the passages:
“As soon as I’m in the trees, I retrieve a bow and sheath of arrows from a hollow log. Electrified or not, the fence has been successful at keeping the flesh-eaters out of District 12. Inside the woods they roam freely, and there are added concerns like venomous snakes, rabid animals, and no real paths to follow. But there’s also food if you know how to find it.”
And by using the principle of show don’t tell, the author doesn’t tell us Katniss’ goal outright—she shows us it through Katniss’ actions.
Your first chapter should be the same way. Show your protagonist’s goals, don’t tell the reader what they are.
5. Unique Character Voice
One of the greatest tools to pull readers in is a unique character voice. Character voice is the unique way that a character in a novel or short story expresses themselves outwardly and inwardly, according to Masterclass.
The best way to determine your protagonist’s unique voice is to dig deep into their personality and backstory. The reason for this is because a character’s voice is influenced by a variety of factors—including religion, upbringing, worldview, education level, gender, culture, and more.
Thinking about each of these aspects and how they relate to your protagonist will help you develop your protagonist’s unique voice.
Unique character voice is a big topic, so if you want to learn more, check out this article from Go Teen Writers.
6. Introduce the Conflict
Without conflict, you have no story. That’s just a fact. Without conflict, all you have is a bunch of characters doing stuff. That’s not a story—that’s just boring.
Conflict is one of the main elements that pulls readers in and intrigues them to keep reading.
But what is conflict exactly? In its simplest form, conflict is when a character wants something and something stands in their way. It’s that simple.
You don’t want to make everything easy for your protagonist, which is why conflict is necessary.
For an example, let’s go back to The Hunger Games. As I already established, Katniss’ goal is to protect her family, which is shown through her actions. And this goal is threatened when her sister’s name is announced at the Reaping–the ceremony where the participants of the Hunger Games are chosen. See? Conflict. This is just one example and it’s towards the end of the chapter, but my point is still clear.
Think back to the goals you created for your protagonist and ask yourself what obstacles you can put in their way. That’s how you create conflict.
7. Hint at Theme
The theme of your book and with it, the character arc, are what make your story matter. Because you might have an intriguing plot and compelling characters, but if there’s no growth or lesson learned… none of it really matters.
This is why hinting at the theme from the beginning is crucial.
It doesn’t have to be anything huge—but at least give a nod to the protagonist’s main flaw or how they’re going to change throughout the story in the first chapter.
Going back to The Hunger Games example, take a look at this excerpt from the first chapter:
“We could do it, you know,” Gale says quietly.
“What?” I ask.
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it,” says Gale.
I don’t know how to respond. The idea is so preposterous.
“If we didn’t have so many kids,” he adds quickly.
They’re not our kids, of course. But they might as well be. Gale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you may as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live without us? Who would fill those mouths that are always asking for more? With both of us hunting daily, there are still nights when game has to be swapped for lard or shoelaces or wool, still nights when we go to bed with our stomachs growling.
“I never want to have kids,” I say.
“I might. If I didn’t live here,” says Gale.
“But you do,” I say, irritated.
“Forget it,” he snaps back.
The conversation feels all wrong. Leave? How could I leave Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love?
In this passage, the author hints at the theme in the first chapter through Gale—Katniss’ hunting buddy—when he tosses out the idea of running away and leaving District 12. Katniss thinks it’s a ridiculous idea and doesn’t even give it a second thought, but this shows us a hint of the theme.
The entire theme of The Hunger Games trilogy is rebelling against the unjust Capitol and it’s about Katniss’ journey to becoming the Mockingjay—the face of the revolution. Obviously, in the beginning, Katniss’ dismissal of just the idea of running away and revolting against the Capitol shows the state she’s in and how much room she has to grow.
There are plenty of other ways to hint at the theme in your first chapter, but keep this example in mind as you write. And try to weave in your hint naturally, making sure it doesn’t feel forced—because that’s the cleanest way to add it in.
8. Tie in the Plot
Last but not least—the first chapter should tie in with the plot in at least one way. This is so the first chapter pertains to the story at large and isn’t just some random scene that doesn’t matter or add to the story.
This means your first chapter shouldn’t contain just backstory that could be recapped later on or shown through flashbacks. The first chapter should be relevant to your story as a whole. In other words, if your first chapter could be cut from your story easily, it probably doesn’t matter or add to the story.
Let’s take a look at this in action with, you guessed it, The Hunger Games.
The first chapter ties into the main plot, because of the Reaping Ceremony. As we already covered, during the Reaping, Katniss’ younger sister, Prim, is chosen, ending the chapter on a cliffhanger.
This adds to the plot because Prim being chosen leads to Katniss volunteering as tribute and participating in the Hunger Games—which is the main premise of the story.
Now, think about your first chapter and ask yourself how you can tie it into the plot in some way. Remember to make sure your first chapter isn’t just backstory, filler or able to be removed easily.
The Biggest Thing That Will Help You
If you’re having trouble with your first chapter, the biggest thing that will help you is outlining. The pantsers (writers who write ‘by the seat of their pants’) are probably rolling their eyes at me, but hear me out.
Outlining is an amazing resource for writers because it allows you to create a plan of action for your writing. It also helps in defeating writer’s block.
And it’s true that many writers love writing freely without restriction, which is great. But I encourage you—at least after you’ve written your first draft—to go back and restructure your plot and first chapter to make it stronger.
To learn more about outlining, check out this in-depth article from Self-Publishing School that will help you get started.
You Won’t Get Everything Right the First Try
Writing is hard. There’s no denying it. And writing the first chapter is extra hard. But don’t give up. Even if it feels like all you write is garbage, keep persevering, because it will all be worth it in the end.
Remember, the first draft is never perfect. So don’t expect to get everything right the first time. Just write and don’t think about all the technical details. You will always have time to edit and revise later—after the first draft is done.
You Can’t Do it All on Your Own
Now, this might come as a surprise to some of you, but you can’t do it all on your own.
One of the biggest resources writers have is each other. The process of getting a book publication-ready requires an entire team of people. For traditional publishing, there are literary agents, beta readers, developmental editors, line editors, copy editors, proofreaders, publishers… need I go on?
And for indie-publishing too, most authors like to have at least a second eye on their book, whether it be from critique partners, beta readers, family members, or hiring an editor.
Writing a book is a team effort, so don’t be surprised if you’ve revised and revised your first chapter or your entire book and you’re still not happy with it. Chances are you’re just too close to your project and you just need another person to point out the flaws that slipped right past you.
So once you feel like you’re ready to get some feedback, go for it! Join a critique group, recruit beta readers, or hire an editor. This step is crucial.
To recap, this blog post covered why an engaging first chapter is crucial to your book, the eight elements of excellent first chapters—and additional resources and tips to help you make the most of writing your first chapter.
But now you may be wondering… Okay, I’ve learned a lot, but how do I actually put everything together and apply these principles to my own writing? In other words, what’s next?
And that’s a great question—which is why I’ve assembled a free checklist that covers the eight elements of an excellent first chapter. Now, you can access the elements easily and apply these tips to your first chapter when revising!
Click on the image below to get your freebie!
4 replies added
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